Jeju-do, the nation’s southernmost island province, is now embroiled in a controversy over having its own brand of beer.
If Jeju has a beer brand that can make people, residents and visitors alike, easily associate with the subtropical island, this will surely help increase its tourism income, the main source of the province’s revenue.
The good-quality barley grown there and clean water spouting through chinks of volcanic rocks _ the two major ingredients for excellent beer _ mean the Jeju beer will be another source of pride for the island, which is seeing a sharp increase of foreign tourists, including the Chinese.
As every ale lover knows it, beer is brewed from malted barley and other cereals and flavored with hops. Especially important is the quality of water used in that process. The grade and reputation of beer is usually decided by very minute differences of mineral ingredients and purity of the water. Beer experts say mineral water in Jeju meets all these requirements.
For many tourists, eating local food and drinking local beverages is as important as sightseeing. And this shows why trying local brand beverages like wine and beer can hardly be omitted in tour courses. Overdrinking should be avoided, but a glass or two of low-alcohol beverage is good for a healthy mind and body.
We know many local wine and beer brands that have already become wonderfully memorable tour products. Just by recalling some local beverages, we sometimes remember the cities and countries we have visited in the past, which produce the beverages. Bordeaux wine and Scotch whisky are among such examples. Even tourists who don’t like drinking often buy those as gifts or souvenirs.
Little wonder many island people had great anticipations for a Jeju brand beer. Not only have they decided the brand name as “Jespi,” meaning “Jeju spirit,” but they also finished the bottle design. Its factory site already was planned along the seaside near the provincial capital of Jeju City. The promoters have also worked out a plan to increase the production of high-quality barley.
Regrettably, however, the whole plan is now in limbo after repeated and heated discussions. A bidding process has yet to find a willing investor after three abortive attempts. The biggest stumbling block is huge initial investment needed to start the business. The provincial government has sharply reduced its business plan, but outlook still can hardly be said as bright.
The Jeju beer project is known to have started by benchmarking the “Oirase beer” of Aomori, a prefecture in northeastern Japan. It is a small niche brand in the Japanese beer market in which such giant brands as Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin and Suntory are fiercely competing. Instead of mass production and sales in supermarkets, Oirase tried to find niche market in, for example, expressway rest areas.
After an increasing number of motorists tried it, visitors to Aomori, the place of the origin of Oirase, tended to order out of curiosity and experience its taste.
For ordinary tourists, beer is easier to try than vodka or whisky or even wine, which usually contains a higher alcohol content compared with beer. Also, beer is cheaper than higher-alcohol beverages. The reason Germany boasts the status of “beer kingdom” is that major German states have their own brands of beer and numerous other house beers, which are generally priced at affordable levels.
It is long past time for Jeju residents to add one more appeal to their tourist attractions listed as UNESCO’s world natural heritage. Starting small may be a good idea, and what’s important is never to give up until the end. Who knows? Few can deny the possibility Jeju beer would someday surpass famous Asian beer brands, such as Tsingtao and San Miguel, if only it can brew a brand that perfectly harmonizes with Jeju’s local cuisine rich with seafood and its famous pork from “black pigs.”
I am no beer sponge, but I wouldn’t hesitate to order a Jespi, or whatever its name may be, whenever I visit the province. <The Korea Times/Hu Young-sup>
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